Forget The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins.
Forget L'Affaire Lerouge (1886) featuring our old pal Monsieur Lecoq.
Arguably the first detective novel -- and it's a private detective novel to boot -- is The Notting Hill Mystery, first serialized in 1862 in the pages of Once a Week, a mid-nineteenth century English magazine, and then as a single volume novel in 1863.
Julian Symons first stumbled across it and outted it in Bloody Murder (1972), when he proclaimed that "..there is no doubt that the first detective novel, preceding Collins and Gaboriau, was The Notting Hill Mystery."
For years, the true identity of the author was unknown. The Once a Week editors maintained that it was submitted to them anonymously under the pseudonym of "Charles Felix", and for the next 146 or so years that's all we knew. Oh, there were a few false leads, but in January 2011, writer Paul Collins, after some pretty nifty detective work himself, identified the culprit in The New York Times. Charles Felix, it turns out, was actually Charles Warren Adams, a journalist, traveler, lawyer and, perhaps most significantly, the sole proprietor of the firm Saunders, Otley & Co., which published Once a Week.
Collins makes a pretty convincing case, basing his deduction on several clues, including an explicit reference to Felix's identity as Adams in a May 14, 1864 "Literary Gossip" column of The Manchester Times, the suspicious lack of correspondence between publisher and author (why write to yourself?), and Adams' interests in law (the book's evidentiary process), games (the puzzle aspects of the genre) and his religious underpinnings (there's a strong, if surprisingly dark moral aspect to the book).
Well done, Paul.
* * * * *
A Victorian-era potboiler, in all the best senses of the word, The Notting Hill Mystery was met with plenty of praise at the time, and it still holds its own. It's also surprisingly innovative. Related in a series of reproduced diary entries, family letters, depositions, checklists, official documents, forensic reports and even a crime scene map (who did Adams think he was? A Victorian-era Ed McBain?), the reader is pretty much obliged to piece together the story as private enquiry agent RALPH HENDERSON conducts his "minute and laborious investigation."
In fact, the whole story kicks off with a preliminary report by Henderson to his client, The Life Assurance Association of London, as he relates the results of his investigation of the mysterious death of the wife of Baron R** who sleepwalks into the Baron's home lab and downs a bottle of acid.
Happens all the time, right? Henderson soon suspects a rat -- the Baron himself, who had recently taken out several life insurance policies on his late wife. This is Victorian pulp at its best: enigmatic typography (Madame , Baron **, etc.), creepy mansions, psychics, madness, evil gypsies, loose women, tightrope walkers, kidnapped women, poison, lost inheritances, twins, mysterious suicides and of course, a few more murders. No monkeys in the chimney, but almost everything else is in there.
There's evidently never much doubt "whodunit," although the "how" remains a mystery until almost the end, and then the challenge for Henderson is to prove it.
Which he does, but there's no tidy, pat ending to comfort readers. As Collins points out, The Notting Hill Mystery ends "not in triumph, but in anguish." Henderson is left hanging, pondering the very nature of evil, what is to be done about it and what it all means. We never get an answer.
Which may be a bit more noir than one would expect in a novel from this era.
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